Surrey challenge could determine future of British energy exploration

On a mission: Sarah Finch is taking her legal challenge to the plan for four more oil wells at Horse Hill, Surrey, to the Supreme Court

On a mission: Sarah Finch is taking her legal challenge to the plan for four more oil wells at Horse Hill, Surrey, to the Supreme Court

The Surrey countryside is dotted with chocolate-box villages and rambling footpaths. From Dorking’s vineyards to the zig-zag roadways and stunning vistas of Box Hill – beloved by Olympic cyclists and Jane Austen alike – the landscape is at the very heart of the London commuter belt. 

But a corner of this quintessentially English region has become the unlikely battleground for a fight that could determine the future of British energy exploration. 

A legal challenge brought by a local woman who opposes fossil fuel drilling in the area is now heading to the Supreme Court. 

Sarah Finch, from Redhill, has spent three years locked in a legal wrangle with Surrey County Council after it granted permission to expand an oil site dubbed the ‘Gatwick Gusher’ – due to its proximity to the country’s second-largest airport. 

She argues that the council did not consider the full impact of pollution that the site would generate when it granted AIM-listed energy company UK Oil & Gas (UKOG) permission to drill four new wells in 2019. 

The row is simmering at a time when the UK faces an energy crisis as bills soar due largely to Putin’s war against Ukraine. 

The UK has become increasingly dependent on imported oil and gas as our North Sea production has dwindled. But the situation has led many experts to argue that the UK and Europe should wean themselves off the need for gas from Russia and other despotic regimes. Supporters of the oil and gas sector also claim our domestic industry is better regulated and more environmentally friendly than shipping in energy from abroad.

Two wells already exist at the Surrey site – formally known as Horse Hill – but the company has put forward plans to build a further four, which it says would produce millions of tons of oil over 25 years. 

Surrey County Council conducted an environmental impact assessment before granting permission for the project.

Its scrutiny included estimating pollution that would be created directly at the site, such as from diesel generators and traffic. 

But Finch, a former councillor, argues the assessment did not include emissions released when people eventually start burning oil produced at Horse Hill. 

Known as ‘scope three’ emissions, these have become a key focus for the green lobby. They have proved a thorn in the side of the industry, including giants BP and Shell. 

Finch contends that if these had been considered, the council would not have given it the go-ahead. 

Friends of the Earth, which is supporting Finch’s legal challenge, says the full emissions impact of fossil fuel projects, including scope three emissions, should be considered against the UK and international climate targets. 

The council gave the project the all-clear shortly after councillors declared a ‘climate emergency.’ Finch was at first refused permission for a judicial review. She appealed and a review was granted, with a hearing in November 2020, but the claim didn’t succeed. 

A subsequent appeal was heard in November 2021, just after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. In February this year, that appeal failed – but there was a contentious split decision. Two judges ruled against it, but one backed Finch. 

Finch told The Mail on Sunday this was ‘very validating – but it wasn’t a win’. This month she was granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. A hearing is expected next year. If she wins, the council’s assessment will be deemed unlawful and will need to be conducted again, taking into account scope three emissions. That could, industry sources claim, create a ‘dangerous precedent’ for other projects. 

Those requiring an impact assessment would similarly need to take into account the down-the-line climate change impact. 

The source added that there were fears this could even be used to kill off big new North Sea oil and gas developments – even though political opinion has warmed to the UK tapping into its own deposits. And other industries could also be affected. 

A spokesman for industry body UK Onshore Oil & Gas said: ‘There is a real need for oil and gas in the transition to net zero. The failure to develop these resources locks us into reliance on overseas imports. If we continue down the ‘fingers crossed’ and business-as-usual path, our reliance on foreign imports will offer unacceptable economic, environmental and geopolitical risks.’ 

Sarah Finch, however, claims to have strong local support. She told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The Court wouldn’t have granted permission if it didn’t think that was a very important legal issue. This needs to be resolved one way or the other. I never expected we’d be fighting this long. 

‘It’s me as an individual and my name taking this case, but there’s a lot of other people and support behind it.’ She added: ‘It’s been three years of ups and downs but largely I’ve felt privileged to bring a case that orders companies to consider the climate impact of the oil brought out of the ground.’ 

UK Oil & Gas earlier this month expressed disappointment but not surprise that permission for the appeal had been granted, saying: ‘At the last count, five judges and the Court of Appeal have dismissed this case. Consequently, the company and its legal counsel remain convinced planning consent was granted entirely lawfully, and will therefore strongly contest any further action against its interests.’

Surrey County Council declined to comment.

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